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125. Shyness and Physiological Vulnerability: Moderating Role of Attentional Regulation
Shyness is characterized by an anxious preoccupation with the self in response to real or imaged social situations (Cheek & Melchior, 1990), and has been associated with unique correlates across the lifespan, including increased risk for internalizing problems (Findlay, Coplan, & Bowker, 2009). We also know that underlying psychophysiology and attentional biases towards threat has long been associated with vulnerabilities for psychopathology (Bar Haim et al., 2007). Specifically, greater relative right frontal EEG asymmetry and cortisol reactivity are conceptualized as physiological vulnerability factors (Boyce et al., 2001; Davidson, 2000). As such, the purpose of the present study was to determine whether individual differences in attentional biases towards threat moderated the association between shyness and psychophysiological vulnerability factors of psychopathology in adults.
In a sample of 80 young adults (female = 39; Mage = 23.27 years, SDage = 1.17 years) shyness score was self-reported using the five highest loaded items (Bruch et al., 1989) from the original Cheek and Buss (1981; Cheek, 1983) shyness and sociability scales. Attentional bias was indexed using the dot probe task, with a positive attention bias index denoting attentional vigilance towards angry faces, and a negative index denoting attentional avoidance of angry faces. Frontal EEG asymmetry was calculated using a difference score (ln right EEG power minus ln left EEG power). Because EEG power is inversely related to activity, negative scores on this metric reflect greater relative right activity, and positive scores reflect greater relative left activity (Davidson, 2000). Cortisol reactivity was also calculated using a difference score (sample 3 cortisol minus sample 1, baseline cortisol), with negative scores suggesting greater cortisol reactivity. We conducted two linear regressions to determine whether attentional bias towards threat moderated the association between shyness and frontal asymmetry and cortisol reactivity, controlling for time of day the cortisol samples were collected.
We found a significant interaction between shyness and attentional bias towards angry faces predicting frontal asymmetry and cortisol reactivity. Specifically, we found that in individuals who were vigilant towards angry faces, shyness was negatively associated with frontal asymmetry (greater shyness = greater right frontal asymmetry), and in individuals who were avoidant of angry faces, shyness was not significantly associated with frontal asymmetry. Similarly, we found that in individuals who were vigilant towards angry faces, shyness was negatively associated with cortisol reactivity (greater shyness = greater cortisol reactivity), and there was no significant association between shyness and cortisol reactivity in individuals who were avoidant of angry faces.
These results highlight the importance of considering moderators when exploring the association between shyness and risk factors for psychopathology. Importantly, not all individuals who are considered shy present with physiological vulnerabilities, and low-level, attentional factors may explain some of the heterogeneity we see in shy individual’s psychopathological risk.